Who’s The Fighter?

When you walk into a gym, how do you spot the fighter? Some would have it that he’s wearing a certain color shirt or shorts or prajaet on the arm;...

When you walk into a gym, how do you spot the fighter? Some would have it that he’s wearing a certain color shirt or shorts or prajaet on the arm; some would tell you just look at how she hits the bag; some places would have that caliber of customer quartered off into a special ring or area of the gym so everyone else could feel that separateness, something to aspire to. Look for the guy who is dripping sweat and grunting and that’s him. But it’s not the chiseled Adonis struggling to pull his eyes off his own reflection in the mirror – not that guy; it’s the out of shape, fat, sweating, struggling guy who is more than likely trying to avoid is reflection in the mirror. That is the fighter. Or the woman who has one precious hour per week away from her full-time job and endless responsibilities as a mother and chooses to spend it struggling against the odds to improve at the gym. That is the fighter. The guy strutting around because he just blasted the pads and turned everyone’s heads is a “gym star”. Let him have his own area of the gym.

A while back I was being interviewed and I said that I equate my experience of being a fighter far more closely to someone who is trying to lose a tremendous amount of weight than to the experience of another fighter. I don’t relate to Rocky or Boyka, Million Dollar Baby, or even real people who are also fighters. It’s hard to relate to fighters, honestly, because most of us share so little of what it actually takes and means to be a fighter. But people who are overweight and pushing themselves to finish 20 goddamn minutes on the treadmill, or who will have to lose 60 pounds before they can call themselves “overweight” instead of “obese,” whose struggles are right there for everyone to watch and judge and they come and do it anyway, or whose journeys are seemingly endless – that’s what it feels like to be a fighter. Those are the stories I relate to. And other people have other experiences, that’s fine. Some people go to the gym and feel great and that feeling is what drives them to do more. They smash the pads and feel “empowered” or confident and it’s a high they chase, and that’s awesome. But that’s not my experience and, if I’m being honest, from what I’ve seen of that sort in the gyms I’ve been through, it’s not a very long path. Other things feel good, too, and they’re easier and so off they go to that other thing. But then there are those of us who struggle all the time, with ourselves, with the uphill climb of getting good instead of being good. I don’t love the process, I don’t even really see my progress most of the time because my nose is so pressed in the details. I love Muay Thai and when I let go and it flows through me are some of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced in my life, but they are just precious glimpses amidst thousands of hours of what can only be properly called suffering. And yet I love it. I don’t “enjoy” it, as it’s very painful and it’s a struggle and it doesn’t make me feel good about myself. But who I believe myself to be by working as diligently and relentlessly as I do, is someone I like much better than any other version of myself.

I got this message on Reddit and I started crying while reading it. Then, when trying to explain to my husband why I was crying, I started crying harder and couldn’t even get the words out. I identify with a great deal of what this writer expresses in how he feels at his gyms, which isn’t a huge surprise because he relates to me for exactly the reasons that I relate back to him. What made me cry, what moves me even now and makes this one of the most meaningful messages I’ve ever received is this: it’s incredibly hard to change your beliefs. So hard, that most of us never do it. So when someone tells me, “you’re amazing,” or “you’re so great,” I cannot hear it. I appreciate it, I’m grateful for such praise, but I don’t believe it because I don’t believe those things about myself. One of the first messages that made me cry was one I got from a woman who had gone for a run. She got tired, wanted to stop, then thought of me and didn’t stop and finished her run; then wrote me a message about it on Facebook. I cried. This wasn’t a marathon or race, it wasn’t an important run at all in the sense of “sporting competition,” but by not stopping even when she wanted to, it became an important run. Proving to herself that she could, the run became important because in that moment she became important to herself, enough to push on. And thinking of me and how I operate is what made her determined to keep going. So, someone saying, “I did this thing that I otherwise wouldn’t have because in that moment when I thought of you it made me value myself enough to take a risk,” isn’t telling me something I have to believe about myself or not. It just happened. I get to connect to the fact that this person has connected to me, like a third point in a triangle that’s a shared experience that strengthens all the other points. And mostly I find it incredibly valuable that this guy is telling me that his struggle is worth something to him, because I’ve demonstrated that it’s worth it to struggle. I struggle a lot.

Lessons Learned – Get Back On

In my 3 day Vipassana Meditation Retreat back in November, I spent 3 full days just observing body and mind, non-stop. It was hard, but not in the way I thought it would be. I was terrified that I would have this constant inner-monologue about how much I suck, non-stop for 3 days. Sitting with that, with myself, with no distractions or reprieve seemed like a little stop over in Hell. But it wasn’t like that. It was kind of like when I had my Wisdom Teeth out and the pain killers they gave me didn’t actually dull the pain at all, the pain was totally still there, but I just didn’t care about it. Pain was happening, but it wasn’t significant. That’s what the meditation offered me. The pain was still happening, the thoughts still came, but they also went because they weren’t significant. Twice in those 3 days I met with a monk, who was basically just there to answer any questions I might have, as Vipassana is not “taught” or even guided, you just do and do and do and the adviser tells you whether or not your going in the right direction. At one point, I told the monk that there were many times in a day I would realize I was meditating wrong, but that this was okay because at least I knew it was wrong. The monk got this huge smile and threw his head back as he clapped, saying that this was exactly right. If you’re wrong, that’s okay. He took a pen off the table and balanced it on his hand, showing how this was doing right practice. The he tipped his hand and let the pen fall, showing how you can fall off of right practice, but all you have to do is put the pen back on your hand and start again. The pen falling off is still part of right practice, so long as you put the pen back on the hand. It’s not about always being right, it’s about correcting back without being upset about it. The author of Joy on Demand has an absolutely beautiful and fitting mantra: “do not stop, and do not strain.” Kevin and I use the example of a tight-rope walker. When when you fall off the rope, just get back on the rope. All of this is to say that I fall off the rope a lot. The guy who can do spins and jumps and tricks and shit on the rope, cool; he’s basically got longer gaps between the times he falls off. But the guy who can’t  even spend 3 seconds at a time before falling off, but who keeps getting back on the rope anyway, that’s the fighter.

From the Redditor:

I just wanted to say thank you for being a continuous inspiration to the rest of us in the USA who don’t have the strength, bravery, or willpower to immerse ourselves in nak muay culture the way you have for so many years. I know you are very inwardly focused and are, in many ways, the same person who first took home videos with Master K so long ago. So perhaps when people recognize you in Bangkok or tell you that you are an inspiration, the words don’t carry so much meaning.

But it means a lot to me. Like many people who have suffered trauma, I have always felt unsure about who I am. I am confident in my beliefs, but not myself. When I see a mirror, I purse my lips and scowl. I flinch at the thought of myself, and in an honest sport like Muay Thai, that can be the difference between a good night of training and an awful sessions that sticks with you like glue for the rest of the week.

Tonight, my gym’s fight team was preparing for a big smoker coming up at the end of April. I’m moving away from the Baltimore area before the smoker so I’m not in the competition pool. On top of that, I’m in pretty poor physical shape – not much discipline and I never was much of a natural athlete. I was basically fodder for the competitors. Something for them to chew on between their own match-ups.

So, here’s the big thing – if I had only ever listened to western coaches, I would have already given up on my Muay Thai. Decided that I was a lazy slob, and turned into a couch potato. But your blog has given me a new perspective on my own development. This slow cook perspective isn’t a common attitude in the west (too hard to sell!). I know I can’t compare the psychology of being a fat out-of-shape western man with your experience as a farang woman in Thailand, but for years in western gyms I have felt like I didn’t belong. I did not belong in the gym next to real hard-working professionals. I have always felt like a musician who showed up to an orchestra of educated peers without putting in any practice, with an out-of-tune violin and no knowledge of the songs everybody else knows. And tonight I spent ten minutes working in the clinch with an MMA champion at 185 lbs.

And you know what? I did pretty damn good for a fat, out of shape amateur. And I felt proud instead of shameful at the end when the buzzer rang. I wanted to come back and do better the next time. And I do not have the words to explain how rare that feeling is. I would never have discovered that feeling on my own.

Without your blog, I would have crumpled under the pressure. That feeling that you describe to us when you engage in a private lesson with a Golden Age legend, someone like Karuhat or Dieselnoi, that is how people like me feel every day around the average muay thai athlete. Just seeing their footwork brings me shame. The way their hips turn, the feints, the psychological pressure, the little angles that they take, the stutters in rhythm that make me collapse like an accordion slammed shut by a policeman stopping a busker. That little moment where I feel their absolute control of the dynamic between me and them. That primordial gap. The space they eat up, the space I willingly give them just to let the pressure off a little bit. And they take it and use it to hurt me. It takes me back to the worst days of my life, when I didn’t have any control. It’s like the space a sharp elbow eats, that little frame where a gap becomes an opening becomes a giant cut, and now you are bleeding for the whole world to see. Muay Thai is honest, above all.

But because of your blog – not the little tips and tricks and techniques, but the attitude of persistence and self-acceptance, I pushed forward laughing and found myself winning exchanges I had no right to win. I found strength in the stoicism that you have, the attitude that you, in an incredible act of generosity, have made public to the world. And I hit him with that crunching Dieselnoi knee and saw the MMA champion falter for the tiniest of split-seconds, and that made me feel better than anything in recent memory.

And I have never trained at a gym where I didn’t find someone who shared that recognition of your work. Your writing has found an audience of people who are more than they think they are. Maybe these people aren’t contributing on Patreon, but I have met men and women from every walk of life, blue collar to white, who go “Sylvie? I know her! She’s the reason I’m here and not on a treadmill in some Planet Fitness.” You blog about the surprise of being recognized in Bangkok. But there is a legion of women, men, survivors, losers, winners, and everyone in between in the West who have found something they could not find in their home culture in your writing.

And it has nothing to do with winning or losing. It’s just honesty. You have opened your heart to the world, and there are thousands who are stronger for it. Thank you for that.

And tonight, I found the strength to be the fighter I wanted to be. Not the fighter I thought I was. But the fighter I could become. Because of you. So thank you! From one stranger to another. You have a generous heart and you give us little guys strength when we would otherwise feel weak and out of place. Chok Dee! I feel like a dork for typing all this out, but what the hell. Keep doing you. The world is a better place for it.

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Posted In
Muay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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